- Subjectivity and Comparison
A response to Shino Konishi, “Making Connections and Attachments: Writing the Lives of Two Nineteenth-Century Aboriginal Men.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 410–428
Shino Konishi argues that through her personal attachment to imaginaries of Indigenous masculinity she is able to counter the colonial tropes of Indigenous biography through empathizing with her subjects. It is certainly true that Konishi’s disclosure of her experience of and worries about Indigenous masculinities foregrounds her gendered analysis of Gogy and Bungin. The subjective background of the author makes it possible for the reader to interpret multiple layers of analysis throughout the article. For instance, when Konishi analyzes Gogy’s brutal attack on his wife as directly tied to his unsatisfying relationship with the French explorer Barrallier, the reader can infer that Konishi is trying to situate Gogy’s actions within the colonial representations of Indigenous gendered violence across time. After all, she concludes that “Our readings of past Indigenous lives shape present-day understandings” (424).
The broader question of Indigenous masculinities at the outset of the article brings useful attention to the dynamics between Gogy and Bungin. It highlights questions for me about how French, English, and varied Indigenous masculinities are at play in these historical circumstances, each historical actor attempting to be recognized and to become a recognizing being within alien social structures. Was the distance between Gogy and Bungin rooted in the cultural traditions in which they were raised, or simple differences of personality? What gendered schemas were at play even if Barrallier hadn’t been present? These questions are raised precisely through the framing of the stories in Konishi’s personal interest in Aboriginal masculinities. In [End Page 429] other words, only through Konishi’s discussion of her attachment to the subjects is the heteropatriarchal critique of colonial representations of Indigenous men made clear.
Konishi centralizes connection and attachment as the intellectual force of her analysis throughout the paper. She says that “elucidating such personal connections not only allows biographers to empathize with their subjects as individuals as opposed to archetypes, but is also a practice that aligns with Indigenous approaches” (412). I would push this idea further. It not only allows the biographer to empathize, it allows the researcher to work toward a more complex and nuanced, thus objective, depiction of the past by addressing the subjective investments of the author working in the present. Many Indigenous Feminist scholars, including Aileen Moreton-Robinson, whom Konishi cites to support her claim, developed their ideas about the subjectivity of Indigenous researchers in conversation with western feminist epistemology. This field provides useful theoretical underpinnings for understanding the relationships among accuracy, subjectivity, and attachments for critical Indigenous scholarship.
One of the most widely valued contributions of western feminist epistemology is a clear articulation of how personal attachment and experience shape how scholarship is produced, from research through analysis and writing (see Collins; Scheman; Lorde; and Smith). Scholars outside of feminist philosophy are less likely to understand the more robust feminist critiques of scientific notions of objectivity, which Konishi calls “privileged notions of objectivity” (411). Such traditional approaches to objectivity wrongly assume that obfuscating or avoiding bias makes the production and analysis of data less biased and more objective. Feminist epistemologists show that such approaches to “objectivity” actually reinscribe bias in favor of the status quo—heteropatiarchal settler colonialism (see Lloyd; Messing; Rogers; and Haraway). To disrupt or correct this bias (resulting from attachments, investments, experiences, etc.), attachments must be acknowledged and critically interrogated as part of the analysis. Only through the interrogation of how the researcher’s subjectivity shapes analysis can we begin the process of understanding and correcting bias as a social and inherent part of research (see Longino; Narayan; and Jaggar and Wisor). Therefore, acknowledging the subjectivity of biographers opens the possibility of working toward more accurate accounts of others’ lives by interrogating writers’ personal investments in the subject’s life. Furthermore, such articulations of subjectivity allow authors to centralize the personal-political questions that inspired their work, and, like Konishi, to invite readers to reflect on the most pressing political [End Page 430] aspect of the research—how historical narratives shape contemporary...